The Property and Development Committee year certainly has been a year to remember. We were all thrust into a lockdown period early in 2020 due to the Covid 19 virus that affected everyone and everything around the Country including all areas of the law. The housing market was closed completely with no completions being allowed to take place for some time unless scrupulous sanctions were adhered to and even then only those that had already contractually committed to complete. A meeting was held with the Vice President of the The Law Society and discussions were held as to the way forward with many firms in the Birmingham area requesting guidance as to how to deal with completions of properties and the Covid restrictions.
A decision was made to insert a Covid clause in all contracts, and also The Law Society were working on a Toolkit to assist the legal profession and in particular the Property Section.
Information from the discussion with The Law Society were discussed with the Property Committee and transmitted to other property solicitors where needed.
Electronic/mercury signatures were also discussed at the Property Committee meetings as a way forward to deal with signing deeds where lawyers were not seeing clients in person. Also, there was a discussion surrounding adapting The Law Society Code for Completion where deeds were no longer able to be sent out the same night as completion.
Our Committee meetings changed to virtual meetings. I am sure like so many other people, Zoom, Teams and other virtual platforms had not been greatly used, but we all very quickly adapted.
Our meetings in the Property and Development Committee were well attended but due to Government being tied up with all the problems that Covid brought with it there were not as many proposals up for discussion as would normally be. For example, the proposals on Leasehold Reform were delayed as were discussions surrounding planning changes.
Some of the matters discussed at our meetings were:
a) legal action was being considered against developers including Barratt Homes, Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey in respect of onerous leases and ground rent terms. The Law Commission found bad practice by some of the national builders including misselling. The builders have since confirmed they were rectifying consumers issues.
b) there was a discussion regarding The Building Safety Bill to be introduced following the Grenfell Tower tragedy with developers being required to join the scheme. Tenants were being presented with increased service charges in order to cover for landlords making improvements to cladding. Some changes have been made but this is still a controversial issue.
There were also discussions on impact of Covid on Construction sites around the City. Originally it was assumed it would not affect construction, but it became clear that construction workers could not work safely without being in close proximity to each other. It had a great impact on the constructions work and developments slowed or even came to a full stop.
Court work was affected and court cases in respect of Residential and Commercial matters were not being heard but we still managed as a Committee to have regular updates all the way through the Covid sanctions on those cases that had been heard or on topical matters that would be going through the Courts when the Covid sanctions were eventually eased.
We have had regular updates on Construction and Commercial matters and discussions amongst the Committee on topical issues and how the Coronavirus was impacting on this area of the law.
Updates on Planning law has also been a topic for discussion but the changes that were to be made were delayed.
I am pleased to say that as the months have gone by, the virtual meetings have become easier and we have managed to continue with monthly meetings, but it is noticeable to everyone on the Committee how the work has increased now that sanctions have started to lift. The construction industry is exceptionally buoyant as can be seen by the amount of building work being carried on around the City, the Courts have started to hear cases and the residential market work has increased greatly due to the Government’s stamp duty holiday which was due to end in March but was extended to the end of June on most properties and some relief until September.
It has certainly been an unusual year for everyone on the Property and Development Committee beginning with great uncertainty as to what the future held and finishing with everyone being extremely busy.